If Alfred Taubman, the former chairman of Sotheby’s on trial in a
stately lower Manhattan federal courtroom, ends up trading his elegant chalk
stripes for a prison jumpsuit, the most damaging evidence against him may turn
out to be not the documents that allegedly show how he and Sir Anthony Tennant,
the former chairman of Christie’s, fixed the high-end auction business, or even
Taubman protégé Dede Brooks’ compelling and occasionally tart testimony against
her ex-boss, but the business mogul’s daily planner.
It is rather universally acknowledged that we no longer live in a
democracy, but in a kind of enlightened plutocracy where the super-rich have
their own private transportation system, their own lobbyists, their own schools
(or at least ways to guarantee their progeny priority when it comes to
admissions at the best private schools and colleges), their own resorts, etc.
But rarely is that reality laid out in such gory detail.
Mr. Taubman’s day typically started with a haircut at his
apartment at 834 Fifth Avenue, or a manicure and pedicure, or a massage, or all
four, followed by a meeting or lunch with a Nobel laureate looking for a
handout, or with a prince or princess (not since War and Peace have so many royals trod a printed page), and then a
trip on his Gulfstream 4-the day ending in London, Paris or Palm Beach at
dinner with the likes of the Kennedys or the Dixon Boardmans.
While the merely rich (the top 1 percent) have long known that
billionaires live by a different set of rules (Mr. Taubman’s wealth has
variously been estimated at between $600 million and $1 billion), since they
see them on the podium being fêted at fund-raisers or at morning drop-off at
their children’s private schools and the like, there’s no telling how this news
will play with the jury that convenes at 9:45 each morning at Federal District
Court at 40 Centre Street.
It is decidedly not a jury of Mr. Taubman’s peers; it includes,
among others, a subway token-booth clerk, an assistant principal, an airline
maintenance employee and a postal worker. One has no doubt that these good and
conscientious citizens would be fully equipped to decide the fate of Sotheby’s
former chairman and still-largest shareholder, who made his first fortune in
shopping malls, were the charges against him something straightforward, like
However, he’s charged with a criminal undertaking rather more
arcane: colluding with Christie’s-ostensibly Sotheby’s main rival-to rig the
auction business so that other rich people couldn’t play the two companies
against each other and strike a better deal when negotiating a commission to
sell their Picassos and Chippendales. It’s not immediately apparent who or
where the victims are in this case.
The resolutely nondescript
government team, led by John J. Greene of the Justice Department’s anti-trust
division, has tried to paint the case as one of simple price-fixing. “Any
agreement to tamper with prices is illegal,” said Mr. Greene, whose drama-free
opening argument seemed designed to persuade the jury to ignore the fact that,
despite Mr. Taubman’s (count ’em) eight lawyers and a jury consultant, and the
presence of the international press corps, at heart the case might as well be
about pork bellies as multimillion-dollar Matisses and Renoirs.
It will be interesting to see whether the government’s strategy
works, and what if any relevance it has that more than a couple of the jurors
occasionally appear to be dozing.
The courtroom has been less than full on most days, only reaching
capacity for Dede Brooks’ cross-examination. Mr. Taubman’s unadorned daughter,
Gayle Kalisman, has been in attendance every day, but his wife Judy-there is
some dispute on the cocktail-party circuit about whether she once served as
Miss Israel or
merely Miss El Al-hasn’t been spotted once. Even more curious by their absence
are Manhattan’s art dealers, who
stand to benefit most by Sotheby’s and Christie’s difficulties.
Mr. Greene not only took the jury through the timeline of the
conspiracy-which allegedly began in 1993, when Mr. Taubman “got on his private
jet and hustled over to London, England, and had a private meeting with Anthony
Tennant”-but also offered them a crash course, with the help of a slide show,
in things like consignment contracts, seller’s commission rates and buyer’s
With the exception of a single
fleeting reference to “celebrity sales-some of you may be familiar with the
Jackie Onassis sale”-there has been no attempt to enliven the proceedings by
featuring boldface buyers or sellers, or by showing the bric-a-brac at issue.
(In a separate class-action case settlement, victims will receive a bit more
than half a billion dollars from the two auction houses, of which $156 million
will come out of Mr. Taubman’s own pocket.)
After a brief interlude, it came the turn of the law firm Davis,
Polk & Wardwell to make Mr. Taubman’s case. If convicted, the businessman
faces a possible three-year jail term and a $350,000 fine.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Taubman’s lawyers painted their client as an
“innocent man,” a falsely accused hero straight out of a Horatio Alger
story-despite his splendid three-piece suits, high-powered legal team and
Brahmin-like physical presence, someone who sprang from roots no less humble than
the jury’s own. (In court, the glow that once radiated off Mr. Taubman at
pre-sale cocktail parties at Sotheby’s has been replaced by an implacable
placidity; he resembles nothing so much as a top-of-the-line teddy bear as he
sits behind the defense table wearing earphones to improve his hearing-though
his lawyers, admirably, haven’t used deafness as a defense, at least not yet.)
“He grew up in the Depression,” Robert B. Fiske Jr., one of his
lawyers (and a former U.S. Attorney and Whitewater independent counsel), told
the jury. “His parents had very little money. He started working when he was 9
years old. He enlisted in the Air Force after Pearl Harbor.”
By the way, all the members of Mr. Taubman’s defense team, as
well as the prosecutors, sport American-flag lapel pins. It’s hard to see what
role patriotism or its absence plays in this case. However, there’s apparently
some feeling that the events of Sept. 11-on some days, the air in the courtroom
is acrid from the fires still smoldering at the World Trade Center a few blocks
away-might prejudice a jury in favor of the government.
While Mr. Fiske’s evocation of his client’s
rags-to-shopping-mall-riches trajectory and his charitable contributions was to
be expected (he described Mr. Taubman’s early appreciation of the role shopping
malls were to play in postwar American culture as a “vision”), his defense on
behalf of the real-estate mogul was somewhat less expected.
Mr. Taubman’s chief accuser is Diana D. Brooks (known from Fifth
Avenue to Sutton Place as “Dede”), his former chief deputy and a graduate of
the Miss Porter’s School and Yale, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy
charges and hopes to get little or no jail time by cooperating with the
government. And Mr. Fiske sought to portray her as an ambitious upstart and
liar-Mr. Taubman was her “get-out-of-jail-free card,” Mr. Fiske contended-and
the price-fixing as her brazen idea. It happened, Mr. Fiske told the jury,
after the price of Sotheby’s stock, of which she had more than 500,000 shares, plummeted
in 1994, her first year as C.E.O., when the spring sales fell $35 million short
of expectations and she was desperately searching for some way to improve her
company’s and her personal stock portfolio’s bottom line.
“This was not a good start for Mrs. Brooks,” Mr. Fiske informed
the jury sternly.
While Ms. Brooks was undoubtedly the prosecution’s most eagerly
anticipated witness (the better Park Avenue matrons have been conspiring for
weeks to organize their schedules and their nannies to attend her turn on the
witness stand), the defense spent much of the early going attempting, with
limited success, to tar and feather the government’s other key witness against
Mr. Taubman-Christopher Davidge, Christie’s former chief executive.
Mr. Davidge might have looked like a home-run ball to the
defense. After all, his former employers paid him approximately $8 million in
severance as well as a lucrative consulting deal to secure his testimony
against Sotheby’s. They needed Mr. Davidge’s notes and testimony to win
conditional amnesty from the U.S.
government, under a controversial program in which the crook who squeals first
in such a conspiracy gets off scot-free.
Sir Anthony Tennant, the former chairman of Christie’s and Mr.
Davidge’s ex-boss-with whom Mr. Taubman met on 12 occasions, according to those
incriminating daily itineraries, “Week-at-a-Glance” planners and Gulfstream
“flight analysis” logs that prosecutor Greene let linger on the big screen (Mr.
Taubman had no fewer than seven secretaries, handlers and schedulers to make
sure he showed up at the right place at the right time)-has also been charged
with conspiring to violate the anti-trust laws. However, he can’t be extradited
by the way, he’s denied all wrongdoing.
Much of the first full week of the trial was consumed with Scott
W. Muller, another member of Mr. Taubman’s legal team, hammering away at Mr.
Davidge’s credibility. The problem with this strategy is that it’s most
effective when the object of your derision is trying to save face. However, Mr.
Davidge-who looks like the amiable villain in a James Bond movie, with his
razor-sharp features and close-cropped beard-admits he lied when he repeatedly
told Christie’s lawyers that no collusion existed between his company and Sotheby’s.
According to the charges, the collusion-which included creating
non-negotiable commission rates, sharing “grandfather lists” of preferred
clients, and agreeing not to badmouth each other’s firms or poach their
employees-was initiated by Mr. Taubman but readily embraced by Sir Anthony, who
believed that good relations with one’s rivals “took out a level of competition
which was unnecessary,” Mr. Davidge testified. The two men left it to Ms.
Brooks and Mr. Davidge to work out the details in a series of meetings,
including one in Ms. Brooks’ Lexus (if Mr. Davidge recalls the car’s make
correctly) at J.F.K. airport.
While Christie’s former
C.E.O., who now lives in India with his severance package and a young wife
considered to be a great beauty, seemed to derive sadistic pleasure from
forcing Mr. Muller to show him a particular document or help him refresh his
memory about the most trivial things he did or said, he eventually, usually,
got around to admitting that regrettably, yes, he did lie.
Mr. Davidge’s biography is at least as compelling as Mr.
Taubman’s. He dropped out of school at 16, supported himself by buying and
selling at London street markets (perfect training for running a major
intentional auction house, wags in the peanut gallery have pointed out), and
then got a job at Christie’s where, over the next 34 years, he rose
methodically through that gilded world by dint of hard work and street
smarts-never more in evidence than in his understanding of the care and
grooming of the British aristocracy, for whom his respect seems meager at best.
Some of the trial’s lighter moments have come at their expense
(and Mr. Muller’s), as Mr. Davidge-who never found acceptance among the
monarchy’s upper classes, nor apparently lost much sleep over it-gently
lectured the lawyer on the subtleties of English class and caste. During one
such exchange, Mr. Taubman’s lawyer expressed skepticism over Mr. Davidge’s
claim that he wasn’t particularly familiar with Lord Camoys, who became deputy
chairman of Sotheby’s board of directors.
Mr. Muller, sounding impressed, noted that Camoys’ credentials
included serving as Lord Chamberlain to the Queen of England, the male
equivalent of a lady-in-waiting.
“That wouldn’t make him well-known,” Mr. Davidge noted archly.
“An American lawyer can’t rattle a man like Davidge,” observed
Nicholas Wapshott, the Times of London ‘s
man at the trial. “Davidge is like Jeeves. He’s seen absolutely everything.”
Dede Brooks cut a far different, almost tragic figure as she took
the witness stand at the start of Week 3. “She looks terrible,” sighed a woman
in the audience who knew Dede back when she was the most powerful woman in the
Ms. Brooks testified that she’s currently tutoring
underprivileged children and working on a project to turn unused convents into
boarding schools for inner-city children-a laudable venture, but one that
undoubtedly lacks the thrills of being the toast of New York society and a
business-magazine cover girl.
Sotheby’s former C.E.O. portrayed Alfred Taubman as anything but
the detached philanthropist his own lawyers have tried to paint him. She said
she had to ask him, at the behest of her children, to stop bugging her at home
with phone calls on weekend mornings; she was already putting in 80-hour weeks
at the office. And he called not just to discuss affairs of state, but also
things as picky as whether a piece of jewelry ought to be reshot for a catalog,
At another point, she testified that he broached the possibility
of fixing not just commission rates with Christie’s, but also estimates on
works of art. “I told him there was no way we could do that,” Ms. Brooks told
the jury, describing it as “impractical.” “Our art specialists were in the
business to do a job. There was no way I could start telling them what
estimates to put on objects.”
Hovering over the trial is the question of why Dede Brooks went
along with the scheme and destroyed her reputation. At her peak, she was worth
between $35 million and $40 million in Sotheby’s stock options, she reported,
and sat on the boards of Yale, Morgan Stanley, Deerfield
Academy and Delaware’s
The prosecutor for this phase of the trial, Philip Cody, gave Ms.
Brooks ample opportunity to explain her motives and rehabilitate her image, but
she didn’t seize it. At one point, he asked why it had taken several weeks for
her and Mr. Davidge to meet for the first time in London
and begin to work out the nuts and bolts of the collusion that Mr. Taubman and
Sir Anthony had allegedly agreed to in principal.
“I have thought a lot about that in the last 22 months,” Ms.
Brooks told the hushed courtroom, before reaching for the most prosaic of
explanations: Newly appointed as the company’s C.E.O., she wasn’t as
well-informed about the organization’s European operations as Mr. Davidge was
about Christie’s, and first needed to get up to speed.
She added that while she was nervous about the meeting, she-in
apparent contradiction-found nothing wrong about attending it at the time,
since she believed Sotheby’s provided its clients and shareholders value and,
before the alleged collusion, “we were killed by what we were having to give
away”-referring to concessions such as 0 percent sellers commissions-as the
competition with Christie’s became increasingly cutthroat.
For a moment, it was almost possible to sympathize with her-the
new gal in the job just wanting to please the boss and help the bottom line.
While the witness threw some morsels Mr. Taubman’s way-describing
her former mentor as “an amazing man, incredibly passionate about
Sotheby’s”-she wasn’t above sticking a knife in his back, or rather his
well-upholstered belly, and undoubtedly ingratiating herself with the Feds. She
recalled a dramatic meeting with Mr. Taubman-one guaranteed to make it into a
movie about the case in the works at HBO. (Sigourney Weaver, another Yalie, is
considering playing Ms. Brooks and has been spotted in the courtroom boning up
for the role.)
The meeting occurred as the government was lowering the boom on
Sotheby’s and Ms. Brooks was instructed not to meet Mr. Taubman outside the
presence of a lawyer. Alone together momentarily outside her office, he told
her “Just don’t act like a girl,” she testified. At the end of the meeting, she
added, he held up a copy of the Financial
Times with a story about the unraveling conspiracy and her picture on the
front page and said, “You’ll look good in stripes.”
Mr. Fiske’s cross-examination of Ms. Brooks may have seemed only
to raise her stature in the eyes of the jury as he pursued a desultory line of
questioning that seemed aimed at persuading them that the price-fixing scheme
was Ms. Brooks’ idea. She forcefully and
succinctly challenged his interpretation of events and his selective reading of
her grand-jury testimony. To some art-world types in the courtroom, it was a
flashback to the old Dede they knew and respected, if not necessarily
The only points Mr. Fiske seemed to score came at the end of his
cross-examination, when he played a video of a 1997 appearance Ms. Brooks made
on Wall Street Week in which she
stated, “Our integrity is all we have”-bringing her briefly to tears.
Why people such as Mr. Taubman and Ms. Brooks, who had it all,
would risk their reputations for something as dangerous and potentially
transparent as rigging the auction market may never be suitably answered-at
least not in court. The most logical explanation, of course, is that they
didn’t think they’d get caught.
Mr. Fiske, who was delegated to cross-examine Ms. Brooks-perhaps
because he seems as equally high WASP as she-tried to address that mystery in
his opening argument, spinning the question to his advantage and using it as an
argument for Alfred Taubman’s innocence.
“At 70 years old, he was secure,” Mr. Fiske told the jury. “He
had it all. For years, he’d had both fame and fortune. He had a net worth of
over $700 million.”
The jury could agree with Mr. Taubman’s lawyers that this friend
of princes would have no reason to do anything as dumb and self-destructive as
fixing prices with his chief rival. Then again, reviewing those itineraries,
they may decide that it was precisely the lifestyle they reveal-the jets, the
apartments, the friends who, like him, seemed to inhabit an almost magical
realm-that persuaded him that he was above the law.